Venture capitalists aren't like your discount broker; you can't just call them up plop down a few thousand bucks and invest in their funds. First of all, they'll likely want more than a few thousand, and more importantly, you need to be considered an accredited investor.

In its eternal struggle to protect its citizens from themselves, the government declares that you need a net worth of $1 million or a $200,000 annual income to be worthy of risking your capital in start-ups.

For the rest of us -- and those who might qualify, but don't want to deal with the risks of venture capital funds -- there's a work around: Invest in public companies with venture capital arms. Sure, you won't gain the mind-blowing returns you hear from venture capital funds that invested in Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) or in their infancy, but you will gain a little exposure to the pre-IPO market.

New technology makes the acquisition go around
The biggest benefit for a company to have a venture capital arm doesn't even come from the monetary returns from the investment. If Google's venture capital arm -- aptly named Google Ventures -- gets a 10-bagger off of a $10 million investment, that's hardly going to do much to the company's $7 billion annual income.

Instead, having a hand in the development of new technology allows a company to keep from getting too set in its ways, something Google actively seeks out. Entrepreneurs are the trend setters, the wave of the future, the future Rule Breakers. Why wouldn't companies want to be associated with them?

Being forced to figure out whether an investment is good or not can also help a company realize the direction its industry is headed and adjust its course as needed.

For drug companies that often build their pipeline through acquisitions and partnering deals, having a hand in developing companies can come in very handy. Boehringer Ingelheim recently joined Novartis (NYSE: NVS) and Pfizer (NYSE: PFE) in a growing list of pharmaceutical companies with venture capital arms.

For big pharma venture capital arms, they may require first right of refusal to partner on a drug or purchase a start-up if it's being sold. But even if they don't -- GlaxoSmithKline's (NYSE: GSK) SR One specifically says it doesn't -- the more familiar a company is with the potential partner or acquisition target, the easier it is to value its assets. And what better way to become familiar with a company than to get a seat on the board through an early investment?

Getting a little help from your average Joe
Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ) and Procter & Gamble (NYSE: PG) have taken the entrepreneurial spirit a step further. Both are interested in getting new ideas directly from individuals. No start-up necessarily required.

In Procter & Gamble's case, the company even lists its needs right on its website. Have an idea for a baked potato snack or a way to enhance the softness of toilet paper? Procter & Gamble would love to hear from you.

An added bonus
A venture capital arm or website seeking out new ideas from inventors isn't necessarily a reason to invest in a company. If you really want to go that route, get accredited and find a venture capital fund.

But given the option of picking two companies, one with a venture capital arm and one without, I'd lean toward picking the one that has its eyes on entrepreneurs. If you're investing for the long term, the entrepreneur's idea might just show up in your investment's revenue line soon enough.

Pfizer is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick. Google is a Rule Breakers recommendation. Amazon is a Stock Advisor choice. Novartis is a Global Gains recommendation. Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble are Income Investor picks. Motley Fool Options has recommended a buy calls position on Johnson & Johnson. The Fool owns shares of GlaxoSmithKline and Procter & Gamble. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days.

Fool contributor Brian Orelli, Ph.D., doesn't own shares of any company mentioned in this article. The Fool has a disclosure policy.